Why Can't Felons Vote?

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A troubling story that has not gotten much attention this election season — or any recent one, for that matter — is why a certain group of roughly 5.3 million Americans won't be allowed to vote. It isn't because they're underage or non-citizens or mentally incompetent. It isn't because they're unregistered or physically unable to get to the polls. It isn't even because they're limping around with a chronic case of political apathy.

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The reason they can't vote is that they're felons.

Oh, well. Felons, you say. They're criminals, for Pete's sake. Of course they shouldn't have the right to vote. But why is that, exactly?

In places like Mississippi, one of 12 states that permanently bar at least some felons from voting, the reason typically involves the notion that people have displayed very bad judgment by committing a felony, by definition a serious crime. No argument there. But having done so, the thinking goes, they have also proven themselves unfit to make one of life's most important decisions: choosing the nation's leaders. As Roger Clegg, president of the conservative advocacy group Center for Equal Opportunity, neatly puts it, "If you aren't willing to follow the law, you can't claim the right to make the law for everyone else."

Officials in Mississippi are so taken with this slogan that they recently piled 11 disqualifying felonies onto the 10 listed in their state's constitution. The Mississippi attorney general said they could do so without actually amending the constitution, based on his creative reading of a 1998 federal court decision, but the American Civil Liberties Union disagreed. On Oct. 9, it filed a lawsuit in Hinds County, Mississippi, challenging the 11 additions, including shoplifting and timber larceny, as improperly adopted.

Notice that the ACLU didn't challenge the 10 felonies already in the state constitution. That's because it is generally legal for states to disenfranchise felons — the U.S. Constitution says so. (OK, not in so many words, but that's how the Supreme Court reads section two of the 14th Amendment.) Forty-eight states prohibit current inmates from voting, 36 keep parolees from the polls, 31 exclude probationers, and only two — Vermont and Maine — allow inmates to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a liberal advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

I can't get worked up about the inmate vote, since prisoners haven't yet done their time and are temporarily estranged from their political communities. But there is at least one good argument for granting the vote to the almost 4 million felons who are out of prison, and her name is Leola Strickland, of Hinds County, Mississippi.

In 2001, Strickland postdated three checks of between $90 and $500, and then for unrelated reasons lost her job as an administrative assistant. By the time she got a new job several years later, the checks had bounced. Bad judgment? You bet. So she was hauled into court this year and, in exchange for pleading guilty to a felony and making good on the checks, allowed to stay out of prison. Now Strickland is working and paying her bills and taxes, and she wants to vote. "I always voted," she says. "My vote may be the one that counts to get the right person in office. It may be foolish of me to think like that, but that's how I feel."

The feelings of a felon don't matter much in Mississippi, at least when it comes to voting, and that's unfortunate. If someone wants to vote, to in effect play by the rules, doesn't it make sense to encourage that person, to put a collective arm around her and say something like, Let's go give those numbskulls in Congress a piece of our mind? Wouldn't that make a past transgressor feel as if she had a stake in the system? Of course it would. In fact, a Sentencing Project study that tracked released felons from 1997 through 2000 found that those who voted were less than half as likely to be rearrested as those who did not — or could not — vote.

And don't fall for the line that the nation's original plan called for denying felons the vote. In 1800, no state prohibited felons from voting. On the eve of the Civil War, 80% of the states did, largely to block African Americans, who though rarely allowed to vote were disproportionately represented among felons. Today, the impact of these laws still falls disproportionately on poor, minority males, a fact that seems to have skewed more than a few elections. Anyone familiar with the details of the deadlocked 2000 presidential race will recall that tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters were disenfranchised because of Florida's laws against voting by felons. A relative handful could have made Al Gore president.

So here's the thing: Felons who are out of prison have largely served the punishment prescribed by the judicial system. Shouldn't that be enough? Penalizing them further by taking away their right to vote is not just unfair to them, it's bad for us. We'll be lucky if 40% of eligible voters cast a ballot on Nov. 7. What kind of a democracy is that?

We should be finding ways to get more voters to the polls, not looking for excuses to keep them away. So instead of prohibiting felons from voting, let's require them to do it. That way, they will continue to repay their debt to society, long after they walk out of prison.